New Broadway Comedy “cottage‘ opens with the lovers in an English country house in 1923, the morning after their annual secret meeting. Sylvia, played by Laura Belle Bundy in ‘Legally Blonde,’ is burning with her passion for her lover Bo, played by Eric McCormack in ‘Will & Grace.
It’s a mid-June afternoon, and the cast hangs out in plain clothes at a rehearsal studio in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. When Bo buried his teeth in Sylvia’s leg in a fit of lust, McCormack was actually playfully biting into Bundy’s sneaker top.
Oh, the charm of acting!
But the play itself has a borrowed elegance. Perhaps a farce, playwright Sandy Rustin rejects the term’s associations with cliche characters and clowns, but “The Cottage” is witty in the Noel Coward type. It’s a feminist twist on British comedy.
“I’m a big fan of the whole genre of British posh style,” Rustin said. His most famous play is The Crew, a murder mystery comedy based on the 1985 film. “But female characters often leave a lot to be desired. They are often just there to serve men. I was interested in that.”
It’s no coincidence that actor Rustin, who studied sketchwriting and improvisation at the Upright Citizens Brigade, set The Cottage in the 1920s, when women’s rights in England were in the spotlight. Feminism, however, is implied rather than overt in much of the play.
It is gradually becoming clear that Sylvia, played by Bundy, is the heroine of this ensemble work, and previews will begin on July 7 at the Helen Hayes Theater. Sylvia cheats on Bo and marries Clark, who then has an affair with Bo’s wife Marjorie. All of them, and a few other lovers, show up in a very crowded cottage by the second act.
The six-man cast includes Lily Cooper, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her recent Broadway run of Tootsie in last year’s feminist farce POTUS, as a pregnant Marjorie. Late “Saturday Night Live” Alex Moffat plays Clark, a role that makes use of Moffat’s talent for falling down stairs. Directed by Jason Alexander (Seinfeld).
“Comedy is difficult,” said Alexander, but he was an enthusiastic presence, watching from behind the music stand during rehearsals. “It’s hard work to make something light.”
After a few days of stumbling, he, Rustin, and some of the actors had a private phone call about what it would take to pull off this nouveau riche period drama. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
It’s all about accuracy, darling.
Sandy Rustin All the actors walk on stage as if they were in a canonical Noel Coward play, as if they were in an Oscar Wilde play. And it kind of goes off the rails. Little by little, the reality is revealed.
laura bell bundy About 140 out of 147 pages [of the script]. And let me tell you, these words are not normal in my language. I swear it was the hardest thing to do, remembering where “rather” and “darling” go. If you don’t understand the exact wording, it’s not style. And because that’s the rhythm, you have to speak very quickly.
“The pace becomes the character.”
Eric McCormack As Jason has said many times, those are all great words, but without the pacing, without the absolute synergy of the six of us, we’re just sitting there. With the six of us firing all cylinders, this becomes something of its own, effectively personalizing the pace. The urgency of the play is as much as we are all running for our lives, not just the “oh my God, someone is coming to the door” danger. We are dancing for life.
bandy Comedy, especially stage comedy, has a rhythm. Comedy is in delivery, tempo, and volume of dialogue. It is essentially the same as musical theater or multi-camera comedy. That’s why I think Eric does this so well. That’s also why Jason is doing this successfully.
A play is like a musical. Or whack-a-mole.
Jason Alexander I call it a non-musical musical. In a musical number, everyone there understands the tempo, the intonation, the mood of the song and the movement of the song, even if they are far apart from each other. In this play and this cast it is demanded in a very similar way, but there is no one to keep the drum beat and no one to play the melody. Therefore, they must feel it in their hearts in each other.
Lily Cooper We are all like cogs in this wheel. And sometimes we stand on stage with 6 people. But you know, the focus has to be on something very specific. Therefore, we need to learn how to instantly blend in with the landscape and momentarily leap forward. In rehearsal the other day, I compared this play to Whack-A-Mole. You need to figure out which mole pops out of its hole and when.
A script is a kind of sheet music.
bandy When I lost my voice the other day, it was difficult to convey all the tones that could hit the punchline if I changed the tone of my voice. Whatever the format, whether musical theater or comedy, there is music without music.
McCormack This role is literally a three octave role. All these notes are necessary to get on the wave of very advanced English conversation.
Poses are inherited from the past.
alexander Can we find a common language of action, action, movement and style of play that is clearly rooted in what we now think of as the over-the-top acting style of the 1930s and 40s? There are things like poses that just behave differently. I’ve said to Eric once or twice, “Eric, that arm gesture you just made is 2023.”
bandy the body language of [Sylvia] How does a fairly wealthy woman in 1920s England keep her body? i understand that. Then, as she began to change and become more authentically herself without being bound by the beauty of her time, what a woman should be, how a woman should behave, how her body language would change. Huh? It’s all really a matter of calculation.
The corpse is the subject of comedy.
Rustin I often write really physical comedies, where the text and what happens to the body on stage are equal parts. For me those two are marriage. Humor comes from how these people live in their space.
cooper I got pregnant just recently, a year and a half ago.It’s so crazy how you put it [costume pregnancy] pissed off really brings me back. It’s like sensory memory. When I was pregnant, it was kind of hard to believe. It’s a pretty wild thing that we grow human within ourselves. So there is an element of absurdity. Spatial awareness has comedy. When you have an inflated belly, it physically occupies more space.
pie, no. Stairs, yes.
McCormack Beyond just not wanting to fall down stairs after 100 (I’ll leave that up to Alex), the challenge with physical comedy is largely about doing what you feel in the moment. We’ve all seen pies in the face and so on. But finding original moments, especially during moments of high anxiety and high anxiety, is just such a huge reward.
Alex Moffat I would love to go into the theater and see what the stairs are like.Currently, we [rehearsal] It’s located up a few stairs.can [fall down them] 6-7 times a day, like we’ve been doing. But if from the upper level of the cottage he descends 12 flights of stairs, he has a lot of work to do.
political message? Sneak in.
bandy It was this woman’s inspiration that made me so drawn to this play. [Sylvia] She’s starting to realize that her pleasure doesn’t have to revolve around male love. Female sexuality is highly prejudiced. And the thing is, these truths about what it means to be a woman with a sexual drive also make us laugh.
moffat Hopefully it’s just a laughing freight train. But no doubt people might be surprised that the play has such a great, powerful, feminist perspective. Just do something really funny and get people on that ride, and as long as people get caught up in that comedy and story, it works. And maybe at the end they say It made an interesting point. ”
cooper One of my favorite lines in the show is [paraphrasing]”Well, maybe she doesn’t need a man.” The concept itself, which is incomprehensible to this generation, is strange. and a feminist.